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Israelis in Golan Seek Normal Life on Edge of Syrian Conflict


FILE - Smoke and explosions from the fighting between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebels rise in the village of Jubata al-Khashab as seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Israel’s defense minister says life in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is proceeding normally after a week of above-average spillover incidents from the Syrian civil war next door.

Israeli media have reported that stray shells and gunfire hit the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan at least 16 times during the last week of June. They said the fire originated from battles involving Syrian government forces and rebels in the Quneitra region, on the Syrian-controlled side of the plateau.

Israel’s military struck back at the sources of the errant fire, which it said did not cause any damage or casualties in Israeli-held territory. Israel has retaliated for several similar incidents in recent years.

Speaking to members of his nationalist Yisrael Beytenu party on Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he had just returned from a visit to the Golan and found that Israelis there are enjoying “quiet” and “security.” The Times of Israel quoted Lieberman as saying that Israeli farmers in the region were continuing to plow their fields, while tourists were braving the hot weather.

Israel captured part of the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War and later annexed it in a move not internationally recognized.

Rebel neighbors

Israeli farmer Erez Zukerman, who lives in the community of Merom Golan and works as a local tour guide, is accustomed to operating meters away from territory controlled by Syrian Islamist rebel groups.

“These are our neighbors – we don’t like to say good or bad neighbors, we like to say stable or unstable,” said Zukerman, who gave VOA’s Persian service a tour of the Israeli side of the Israeli-Syrian cease-fire line in the Golan, three weeks before the latest spillovers from the conflict.

From a hilltop overlooking Quneitra, the jeep tour, streamed live on Periscope, proceeded to a former Syrian military headquarters captured by Israeli forces in 1967. The derelict building, covered in Israeli graffiti, sits on the northern edge of a U.N.-established demilitarized zone within Israeli-controlled territory.

After exchanging greetings with a young Israeli soldier resting outside the building, the 25-year-old guide drove the jeep into the DMZ, a trapezoid-shaped area consisting mainly of Israeli farmland adjacent to Quneitra, a town abandoned by Syria after the 1967 war.

“Look how closely we farm next to Syria,” said Zukerman, as he pointed to vineyards and other cultivated fields leading up to a 3-meter-high fence about 200 meters away.

He also said Israeli soldiers largely have ignored the DMZ by patrolling the farmland in recent years, to protect against rebel groups who seized parts of Quneitra despite its location in a U.N.-designated “Area of Separation” or buffer zone under U.N. observation.

At the southern edge of the DMZ, the situation was calm enough to exit the jeep and walk to within 30 meters of the Quneitra crossing – the only concrete post along the cease-fire line. Just ahead of an Israeli checkpoint at the crossing, big yellow signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English warned of “mortal danger” to anyone who tries to pass the fence.

“About a mile that way, you’ve got groups like al-Qaida,” Zukerman said. “They have AK-47's, artillery. But we have tanks, jet fighters and attack drones, so they’re not going to do anything.”

Threat perception

Zukerman also said Israeli troops do not necessarily open fire when people approach the cease-fire fence from the Syrian-controlled side.

“If somebody gets close, we might not shoot, because it could be a civilian seeking medical aid from Israel,” he said. “So we would send out a patrol unit with a medic, in case you have got to help them.”

About 100 meters from the Quneitra crossing is Camp Ziouani, the main base of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF, in the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan.

Guarding an entrance to the camp was an officer from Fiji, the biggest contributor to the UNDOF mission. He told VOA Persian that the situation had been quiet for most of the 10 months that he had been deployed there.

“So far, we have seen clashes between groups in Syria, and sometimes we see Israeli military exercises and deployments, but I have not come across face-to-face fighting,” the Fijian officer said. “I can say it is a bit safe now.”

In a sign that many Israelis also consider the Golan to be relatively safe, dozens of adults and children gathered to swim at a centuries-old, Ottoman-era spring – the jeep tour’s final stop, around 800 meters from Camp Ziouani. The Ein Mokesh spring is surrounded by a minefield, but Israeli troops had cleared a dirt path to the site from a nearby road, enabling it to become a popular local attraction.

Tourism is one of the biggest industries in the Israeli-controlled Golan, which is home to guest houses, nature parks, archaeological sites, a winery and a ski resort.

In a bid to preserve that industry, Defense Minister Lieberman used his public remarks on Monday to urge Israelis to visit the Golan. He also warned armed groups in Syria that Israel would be “very angry” if they disturb the quiet on the Israeli side, while reiterating Israel’s position that it does not want to become involved in the Syrian conflict.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Persian service.

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